Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Learning to DM

Most Dungeon Masters are "self-taught" (that is, they are themselves solely responsible for their own training), for the simple reason that there isn't all that many (any?) teachers taking on students for this particular curriculum.

[and, yes, I am excluding Alexis, whose on-line classes are aimed at individuals who are already "DMs;" he is, in effect, providing a higher level of training to individuals already possessing a degree of knowledge and ability in the art of Dungeon Mastering]

And yet, in the great scheme of things that can be taught, learning to DM isn't one of those things that fall in the "easy" or "straightforward" category. My eight year old is currently learning how to write in cursive...a simple enough task for someone who already has a grasp of the alphabet, consisting mostly of memorization and practicing the proper hand motions. My five year old is in the process of learning to read: much more complex (despite having a working knowledge of the 26 alphabet characters) because of the various rules and exceptions found in the English language.

Personally I have a bit of a phobia (well, more like trepidation) when it comes to working technology, yet even I can learn to configure a printer (or to change its toner cartridge) by following a simple instruction sheet...and rather quickly. Cooking simple dishes for my family (frying eggs and bacon for my children's breakfast, as I did this morning), took very little time to master...though it's a bit trickier than pouring cereal in a bowl and adding milk. And as far as learning new games (of the board and card variety)...well, it really doesn't take me long to digest the small pamphlets of instructions that come in the box, whether you're talking Happy Salmon or Axis & Allies (both games I've learned in the last couple years).

But learning to DM? No, that's a whole different level of learning.

Still, I have learned how to have ALL the DMs and GMs I've ever sat with at table (as a player). And regardless of their particular level of competence, or base adequacy (proficiency, of course, varies between individuals) we've all shared the common thread of having been forced to learn for ourselves how to do this thing that we're doing. I've yet to meet a single person who was trained in the art of running and refereeing an RPG.

Now, for the rest of this post, I'll only be discussing Dungeons & Dragons specifically.

So, how does one learn to be a DM? For myself, I've run (as a DM) at least five different versions of D&D, not counting "half" editions (3.5, etc.). My longest and most memorable campaigns were run using the 1st edition AD&D rules...but I didn't learn how to DM from those books. I learned from Tom Moldvay's Basic set (the "B" in B/X). And I think, if you polled most DMs running pre-WotC versions of Dungeons & Dragons, you'd find MOST of them got their initial "chops" from some form of Basic D&D: either Holmes or B/X or Frank Mentzer's rewrite of Basic (the one with Bargle and Aleena). Prior to 1977 (Holmes) the haphazardness of dis-integrated rules that made up "D&D" was such that unless you were one of the primogenitors of the game (Gygax and Lake Geneva folks) your D&D quite possibly looked wildly different from what would eventually become mainstream Dungeons & Dragons.

[see Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign notes, Hargrave's Arduin, St. Andre's Tunnels & Trolls origin story, Barker's Tekumel, etc. The operable phrase here is "wildly different;" certainly most (if not all) campaigns, mainstream or not, exhibit differences in table/house rules]

But I believe that it is only with the advent of "basic" that D&D has any chance of proliferating at all. DMing is just too complex a task without an entry level set of instructions.

Looking at the cover of my Jeff Easley-illustrated AD&D books, the game is explicitly written for players "ages 10 and up," an age range exactly duplicated on the covers of the later 2nd edition books. But while I don't deny (or doubt) that there are some brilliant 10 year olds abounding in the world, I find it difficult to believe that there are all that many who could pick up the AD&D books alone and start running a campaign. Can a 10 year old play AD&D? Yes, of younger brother was probably 9 years old when the campaign of our youth went "full Advanced." But learn to run a game?'s hard to believe. I could...but only because I had a basic set as an entry point.

Self-teaching...the only route open to most (if not all) would-be DMs...involves learning the rules (i.e. reading the instruction manual), integrating them, and then practicing them. Competency and skill are acquired from the practice of being a DM: designing/prepping adventures and running the game for live players. But you cannot design, prep, or run if you cannot first learn the rules...and for most individuals that means putting them in an accessible, readily digestible format. 600 pages of instructions (the combined count for the 5E PHB and DMG) isn't what I call "readily digestible." But then neither is first edition's 300+ pages. Is it any wonder that we see so many folks running games of Basic or Basic retro-clones or cutdown "semi-clones" (like Microlite20 and Black Hack)?

Dungeons & Dragons is still a game that people want to play, but play requires someone to run the game as a DM. Running a game of D&D isn't rocket science, but it is complex, requiring the internalization of a number of different systems and mechanics as well as an ability to manage a number of unique personalities (i.e. the players) while providing engaging situations/scenarios through a combination of pacing and tension based (mostly) in narration. That's a lot to juggle. And while many players have come to the game through a form of "mentorship" (being shown the ropes by more experienced players), there ain't a whole lot of mentoring available for those willing to pick up the mantle of "Dungeon Master." Videos showing actual play or providing advice on how to create a campaign are just another tool for a person engaged in "self teaching," but it's not the same thing as being addressed and coached by an actual teacher. And hell, a lot of these videos have information that is bad or downright incorrect.

Forget certification...can we get some sort of apprenticeship program for prospective DMs?

Learning to play D&D is simple. Learning to run D&D isn't. And learning to run D&D well? That's a whole 'nother level.

I suppose this might work in lieu of
a Basic rulebook. Is it 64 pages?


  1. A lot of modules are made to be introductory to DM. Teaching both the rules and the other aspects of DM. I never owned these, but when self teaching myself I used the one module I did I own. I ran "The Sentinel" maybe five or six times and that's how I learned. Running a module then slowly building on that to build my own adventures. I think the modern pressure to run a campaign makes the learning curve higher. Back in the day you ran a one shot module and that was ok.

    1. @ seven:

      The terms "adventure" and "campaign" have changed over the years (as have expectations) which kind of muddles the whole issue. I agree that adventure modules can be an important part of a DM's self-teaching...B2 in conjunction with Moldvay, colored my learning immensely.

      But there's more to DMing than building adventures. I designed coherent, three level dungeons on my lunch break for fun (back when I was still plugging away at the day job).

      The learning curve IS higher these days...but I don't think it has much to do with the pressure of expectation.

  2. I think the apprenticeship program for DMing is... playing the game as a character. Admittedly though, for me DMing was more like learning to swim - I did it badly and sloppily at first, but I didn't drown, nor did I swallow so much water that I lost a taste for the process. But I jumped right in, threw myself in the deep end, right from the beginning.

    I'd only played a few sessions of D&D as a character when I started my own campaign, because I learned pretty quickly that A) my friends who DM'd barely knew the rules better than I did and B) I was dissatisfied with their efforts and felt in my heart I could do better.

  3. And yet, many people do believe they know how to run D&D, and get quite testy if you challenge their acumen on even a very small point.

    I can't say for the general audience, but living in a city, and going back to the beginning of my DMing experience in the earl 80s, no one "learned to run on their own." It was all a case of monkey-see monkey-do. No one did it from the books, we did it from others who themselves learned to DM from others who had learned how to DM. We had several people in Calgary who had personal experience with the group in Illinois/Wisconsin, so the skill came handed down from master to apprentice ... and while my masters were ready to answer my questions, later on I was always ready to answer the questions of other DMs. I still am.

    It has become apparent since 2000 that I was very fortunate ~ both because I lived in a large city with a prominent game-store and owner (who still owns said game store 42 years after its founding), and because of that relation from the original designers. And there were lots of players and DMs here in 1979, when I started. But for players in small towns and small cities, bereft of such connections, I know it has been a different experience from mine.

    I hope you'll write another post, where we talk about people who HAVE learned, who are convinced now they have all the answers, and that they don't need to grow and expand their ideals past the same inflexible structures introduced by Holmes and others. Because we need to face it as a community: beginner sets and prejudice against complexity are dogmas and not proper notations of expertise.

    [p.s.: I'm no longer giving classes; but I do continue to give advice]

    1. @ Alexis:

      Mmm... I kind of covered my thoughts on "beginning sets and prejudice against complexity" back when I wrote about wanting more advanced play. I suppose I could elaborate on that.

      Your experience with learning the game, Alexis, is exceptional as far as "old school" DMs...but I think we are (now) seeing a return to a similar paradigm of learning the job. I kind of want to write about THAT, seeing as how it addresses the comments of Nine-Toes and Ruprecht.

  4. As Nine-toes said most people apprentice by being players. Then when you DM you start in a dungeon where players have fewer choices so it is easier to keep ontop of things. The dungeon is the training-wheels of Dungeon Mastering.

    1. @ Ruprecht (and Nine-Toes):

      My response to this requires a different post.

    2. Don't forget initial learning to DM is often for a group of friends who are likely more tolerant of bad DMing than anyone at a convention would be.

    3. @ Ruprecht:

      Really? I've never had convention players pick me up, turn me upside down, and "pile drive" my head over a DMing disagreement. That happens sometimes with "groups of friends" (I speak from personal experience).

    4. I was thinking convention folks might regret spending hours of time in a game they felt was poorly run.

    5. While friends (at least in my experience) are happy to have someone else take on the responsibility so they can play.

  5. I’d estimate that my own learning to DM came about 15% from reading the books (rulebooks and modules and magazines), about 35% from playing with other DMs and watching what they did (both good and bad), and 50% just trial and error practice and repetition - gaining confidence, learning what works and what doesn’t. I’d guess it took about 5 years for me to become a pretty good DM - able to run games for people outside my family and close circle of friends - and another 5 to become really good - able to run consistently satisfying games. I’m still not (and presumably never will be) at the level of the best DMs I’ve ever played with.

    Part of that improvement surely comes from going from age 9 to 14 to 19, but I don’t think that’s all of it - there’s no way if I picked the game up for the first time at age 20 I’d have been as good without the 10 years (Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours) of study and practice. I can think back to a lot of really dumb things I did when DMing as a kid - bad adventure designs and judgment calls that made the play less fun, and tons of missed opportunities - but I don’t regret any of them because I learned from all of them, things you’ll never learn reading a book and won’t really learn even watching an expert. I firmly believe that you have to experience it yourself.

    1. @ Trent:

      And I'd say that, using the Basic set as my entry, it didn't take me nearly 5 years to become "a pretty good DM;" I was running AD&D mostly RAW and handling campaigns of multiple PCs and folks who'd drop in-and-out within a couple much so that when I'd run into people years later they'd remember me as "THE Dungeon Master."

      But "pretty good," "really good," etc. is all subjective stuff. When I say, "pretty good," I mean I was running the game and handling the campaign as comfortably as possible, un-self-consciously, with full authority and buy-in/investment from my players. I might have to look up a rule or two, but I knew exactly where to find the rule in the text and I had internalized that the rule existed. Two years is really about all it took...but I wouldn't have had the ability to do that without B/X as a gateway.

    2. The 5 years is probably an exaggeration. I was DMing games for my family and my best friend within about a month of acquiring the 1983/Mentzer-edit Basic Set, and within about 2 years had become the default DM among my circle of friends because I was the best at it. By that point I definitely knew the rules and had all of the core techniques down, but I didn't have confidence and a sense of authority - to forestall arguments about rules or off-topic digressions, to "run" the table - and that only gradually built up over the next couple of years, until I finally had sufficient confidence to be comfortable running games for strangers. That's the measure I was using for "pretty good" though I was certainly "competent" long before that.

    3. Also probably worth clarifying that because I was lucky enough to be able to attend cons (including GenCon) as a kid I got to see a lot of expert GMs in action and that's the standard against which I measured myself. So when I refer to the best GMs I played under I'm not thinking about my friend's older brother or the alpha-nerd at the local game store, I mean folks like Gary Gygax, Eric Wujcik, Mike Pondsmith, Sandy Petersen, and Tracy Hickman.

      These guys all managed their games with a fluidity, verve, and elan that I didn't fully understand or appreciate until I saw it in action, and that I've striven (not always successfully) to convey in my own games ever since. I've also played with a LOT of other DMs who I'm sure all consider themselves to be masters, most of whom ran perfectly fine games, but there's still a qualitative difference between those sorts of "journeyman" DMs and the really top-tier masters - their level of comfort and confidence, the way they make it all seem totally natural and effortless and create an atmosphere that brings the players in and elevates them to that same level. At these guys' table the formality and artificiality drops away and for a couple hours you're totally immersed in their world, but as an active participant, not a passive audience. You're totally emotionally invested and it's really thrilling and super-intense. It's hard to describe, and it's very rare, but it's not unique - all of these guys had it, even though they ran different games in different genres and styles.

      So that's what I strive for as a DM, and feel that I was able to get pretty close to only after about 10 years of trying - that level of total confidence and effortless mastery that gets the players completely invested.

    4. @ Trent:

      Huh. That’s very interesting. Does that mean (going back to your original comment) that without “playing with these other DMs (both good and bad)” that you credit with 35% of your learning to DM, that you would only be two-thirds the Dungeon Master you are today? Or do you mean it would have taken you a third again as long to learn what you have? Or that you wouldn’t have gotten to the point you’re at, at all, and would still be struggling somewhat?

      I don’t doubt there are those DMs that run the game in the manner you state... but then, how did *they* get that way? Natural talent? Some sort of magician training that translated to role-playing? Where’s the origin of the skill you’ve observed and (then) learned from?

    5. If I were to hazard a guess, regarding people like Gygax, it would be my "answer" to "how does one become a better DM?", which would be: the transition from referee to designer.

      For all that B/X did to help people into the game, I think it's telling how much of the "other games" got their start in the mess of OD&D or proto-OD&D - Tekumel, Arduin; even things like Warlock, C&S, T&T, or Runequest. These weren't just people playing and refereeing, but people inspired to create something on their own. And while the quality varies, reading each of them shows how they evolved to fit their players - the Princecon books, for instance, were clearly written by Princeton students, for Princeton students.

      Speaking from my own experience, I know that making the decision to stop trying to "run the game", and instead started patching together my own abomination and testing rules, was the defining transition from just being good at managing a table, to having proper confidence. And of course, there's the aspects of experimentation and getting constant feedback. After all, games are made at the table, not just by a lone designer.

      Though regarding the main topic, of "learning how to DM", I'm not really sure where that falls. Arneson, Gygax, Hargrave, Barker, and so forth, certainly all hit the ground running. But that's a lot to ask from 12-year-olds, even if some can do it. Perhaps a better way to dip your toes into that, and a better suggestion as per an "apprenticeship" of sorts, is dabbling as a player with different GMs, running different games, and gathering a diverse experience from there. Experience is good; lots of experiences is even better.

    6. That's an interesting what-if. I suspect that if I had experienced those "experts" and had something to strive towards that I would've probably remained at about the same level I hit after maybe 3-4 years of playing (i.e. where I was about the time I started attending cons & playing with a wider set of people) and also probably would've lost interest and drifted away from the hobby after about 6 years (when I hit high-school and developed other interests, started driving, etc.).

      As for the second question, I think it's mostly an organic word-of-mouth thing from the early days (70s-early 80s) when the hobby was small enough that a lot of the top DMs probably were only at most a couple of degrees separated from each other: someone would go to one of the big cons - GenCon, Origins, DunDraCon, etc. - and play in a game with one or more of the OG masters, get inspired by that, emulate it, and spread it in their own circle. It all literally may be traceable back to Dave Arneson (who I never played with or saw run a game, but have heard enough stories that I'm confident he belongs alongside the other folks I named) - that the people who played in his game (including EGG) emulated his style, and then the people who played in their games (including at cons) emulated their style, and on and on, with some folks adding their own twists to the formula as befit their personality types and interests (more voices, less wargamey stuff, etc.).

  6. JB, that's exactly how I learned. Despite living in NYC in the early 80's where I might've learned to DM from someone experienced, I followed Moldvay's instructions to make a dungeon for my brother and my friend and his brother. We all started knowing nothing about the game but what we read in those books, and subsequently the AD&D books. It was years before I played with anyone I hadn't learned the game with, or even saw anyone else play.

    1. @ Sterling:

      You're not alone, man. Many of the bloggers 'round this neck o the internet started with either B/X, Holmes, or BECMI depending on the box that was on the shelf when they finally reached the magical age of "10 and up."

  7. I don't really think learning to GM is especially difficult. It is after all something that plenty of 12 year olds can do competently enough to have a great deal of fun.

    Sure there are tricks to it and styles of it, but the basics are being capable of thinking on one's feet, making fair decisions and running a small meeting. Designing ones own adventures requires a bit of creativity and spatial sense. Not everyone has these skills or even the capacity to learn them - but they aren't especially rare or difficult.

    Yes a lot of the fiddly bits used to be learned from the slightly older kids or at the hobby shop and now get learned by watching play on You Tube - which creates odd expectations and a emphasizes a play style focused on amusing an audience. D&D as improv performance perhaps, but hey Vampire the Masquerade informed an entire generation of TTRPG players and whatever warped play style the Youtube generation embraces can't be worse then 90's goth larp?

    1. @ GusL:

      Yeah, I suppose it doesn't really matter what the level or quality of play is in the hobby. After all, it's just a kids game, right? I should probably just grow up and stop worrying about this stuff...adults who play D&D are a fairly contemptible lot unless they're using it to entertain their kids.

      Doing otherwise is just "taking it too seriously," yeah?

    2. Not what I'm saying at all. You note that I have been writing 20 page essays on minute aspects of on TTRPG style of late?

      My point is more that GMing is something most people can do well, at least well enough to have a good time. I don't like the idea that it's some arduous art to hone and fret over. It feels exclusionary and gate keepy.

      I don't want people being afraid of it. Grab B2 and run it. Screw up. Mess up the rules. Forget a location or two. It'll be fine. Just play and don't get too anxious about it - you aren't trying to sell your acting and adventure to netflix and shouldn't expect to.

    3. @ GusL:

      I’m definitely not a fan of gatekeeping, nor of being exclusionary. Really.

    4. Of course not JB.

      Yet the idea of GM virtuosity is, and it's part of the edifice of cantankerous nerd rage that frustrated/frustrates me about the 'OSR'. The whole idea that this stiff is hard, an elitism and pretension of intellectual superiority over other, later or different playstyles.

      It's in the idea that Gygax's writings deserve hermanutics or crowing about TPKs and Tickets Kobolds. I don't accuse anyone of this, but I suspect we've all seen it. It runs contrary to what I like about ttrpgs, and what us old grogs should recognize more then most, having seen editions and play styles rise and fall - that TTRPGs are at thier best fostering creativity and difference, that they're a place to have fun exploring ideas and stories not a perfectable skill set for experts and celebrities.

      I shouldn't single the OSR out even - YouTube actual play is worse about it, and I want to push back against that. You are right to point out that in the 80's we all just learned to GM catch as catch can in basements and dingy card shops. Mostly from slightly disinterested stoned metalhead/punk kids a few years older then me in my case, but certainly not from minor celebrities with how to's to sell.

  8. I was self taught as was everyone I played with as a kid. I don't remember much if any knowledge being passed down from older players. I did get a lot of info from reading Dragon magazine which is in someways the same thing. After finally attending some conventions in my 30's I was a little relieved to find out I was basically playing the same way as everyone else. Looking back I have put countless hours into learning how to run games and I think it was mostly successful. I think it's like most things where on the job training is the crucial component of gaining competence.